The Hero Next Door
Photography: Eric Kiel
Hammers hover suspended in air. Drills whine down. Workers carrying a huge sheet of plywood slow to a stop and listen intently.
The pagers on their hips have some signals they need to hear: One means standby, another means listen more closely, still another says, drop your tool belts, get in your vehicles, and meet your chief at the station, pronto!
Across the Valley, other “important” things lose priority. A dog pushes a ball around in an interrupted game of fetch; a romantic dinner cools untouched; candles melt down on a birthday cake; the kids have to read their own bedtime story tonight.
This is what a call to your fire department looks like.
What you expect is someone in uniform in something with flashing lights to respond to your emergency.
But do you expect to see your florist? Your kid’s coach? Your city planner?
This is what a call to your fire department looks like.
In your time of need, you probably don’t know what life plans others have sacrificed to be at your side. Or the time taken from their own lives to earn the qualifications to be there.
The oft-quoted adage, “you get what you pay for,” couldn’t be more inappropriate than when speaking of the dedicated souls who volunteer as Valley firefighters.
“Other than, say, crab fishing in the Bering Strait, being a firefighter is among the most dangerous jobs you can do,” says Sun Valley Fire Chief Jeff Carnes. “Volunteers buy their own insurance and they give up countless hours to train. It’s not for the money. It’s because they truly believe in helping their community. If they don’t have that mindset, they wouldn’t even walk in the door.”
Brian Poster's construction clients are understanding when he gets a firefighting call.
They have to be-seven of his staffers serve as volunteer firefighters
Volunteer and combination departments make up 90 percent of fire departments across the United States. Shortages in major cities regularly strain departments during major events.
Most of Idaho’s departments are paid-on-call. Funding comes from city, state, and federal grants, and here in the Valley, from the annual Firefighter’s Ball. With most of the ball’s proceeds going to a fund for fire victims, there is little left over for equipment and other needs.
paid-on-call members, or ‘volunteers’”
—firefighter Tory Canfield
Despite the challenges of affordable housing, the need for working people to carry multiple jobs to live here, and a growing full-time population, they come—mothers and singletons, ski bums and execs—to serve and protect.
“The nature of a volunteer fire department is that you don’t know who is coming, and you wonder if you’ll have enough people to handle it,” says Hailey Fire Chief Carl Hjelm. “But in this community, I don’t have to worry too much. The level of professionalism and dedication here is unprecedented. It makes me proud that the men and women doing this don’t treat it as a part-time job, but as though it was their career.” >>>
Volunteers are on call 24/7, and whether they go out or not, they all jolt to attention when a call goes out, no matter the hour.
“Basically, when someone doesn’t know who to call, they call us,” says Ketchum Fire Lieutenant Tory Canfield.
And their services are not limited to fires. Some are trained as Emergency Medical Technicians (EMTs). Firefighters respond to everything from backcountry rescues, to cats stranded in trees.
Calls can get complicated, says Ketchum’s Acting Fire Chief Mike Elle.
“Since 9/11, the amount of training needed to do our job safely in this changing world has intensified,” he says. “We are expected to do more with a lot less. There is no sitting around the station waiting for the bell. We are always training. You won’t find any decks of cards.”
Volunteers’ families, and even their pets, learn to interpret the sounds of the department-issued pagers. While their timing can be frustrating, the calls are never ignored.
Tory Canfield's firefighting duties slowed due to her pregnancy, but that didn’t quench the lure of the job. She predicted a major emergency would occur while she went into labor, and that she would consider responding. Fortunately, the arrival of 8 lb. 1 oz baby girl Berkeley Dune Canfield April 25 appears to have been distraction-free. The sheriff’s blotter for that date showed no significant activity.
“My yellow lab Hannah hears the pager and she gets all sad,” laughs Wood River Fire and Rescue’s Bass Sears, a computer guy and former headhunter. “Calls never come at the right time. When you are at home all alone with nothing but the TV for company, nothing comes. You have 10 people coming over for dinner, it’s going to be a full-blown structure fire.”
Canfield said she was a little worried that her pager would go off during her wedding; then, when she was pregnant, she predicted, “a huge structure fire when I’m in labor. And I will actually think for a second about going . . ."
Fortunately, it was a quiet day when Berkeley Dune Canfield was born April 25.
“It helps if you were already in the job before marrying, says Hailey’s Pat Rainey, “because sometimes it’s hard to explain to a spouse that there is this unpredictable interest out there calling you away so quickly without a lot of explanation.”
Ketchum firefighter Lara Babalis ran a floral shop when she first began volunteering. She often had to delay a delivery to take care of urgent business, but in her six years on the team, she’s never had a fatality, human or floral.
“I would park my car with a backseat full of flowers under trees for shade, or back it into the bay out of the cold,” she recalls. “Once I had a delivery for a couple’s anniversary and a 13-hour fire at the same time. I just parked the car until it was done and delivered the flowers before midnight. It was a lot of juggling.”
What draws these mavericks to challenge themselves in this way varies with each individual, but there are some common characteristics:
A desire to help others and a need to know how. Strong-willed and independent personalities. Competitive and compassionate souls. Buzz seekers. Team players.
Loose cannons need not apply.
“It definitely takes a certain type of person,” says Hailey firefighter and EMT Anna Yates, mother of three, horsewoman, and SkyWest agent.
“My reasons started out as totally selfish,” Yates laughs. “I like to be competent. The people on the department all have a ‘can-do’ spirit. They have the attitude of ‘Yes, I can do it, and this is how.’”
While working her airline job, Yates recently had an opportunity to put her volunteer EMT skills to work when a passenger collapsed while going through the TSA screening.
“I heard the page because I always carry it with me, so I ran over to screening and I was like, ‘Whoa, I beat the ambulance.’”
Despite valiant attempts to revive the man, he ultimately died, but Yates says the wife later contacted her to thank her for her efforts.
“It felt good to know what to do in an emergency.”
Lara Babalis always wanted to be a firefighter, but her gender was an obstacle back East. Here, she has proven more than capable. The one-time florist and horse trainer has risen to full-time status with the Ketchum department.
Chief Bart Lassman of Wood River Fire and Rescue believes “people do it for all different reasons; it’s hard to put your thumb on why. Some are adrenaline junkies, some just like to keep challenging themselves. But all of them want to help someone who is in trouble.”
The reasons people avoid the job are legion–and mistaken–says Mal Prior, who serves Sun Valley.
“One of the biggest misconceptions is that you have to run into a burning building to be a firefighter. There are a number of jobs—from inspections to safety training, to checking equipment and following up with victims—that we need done, so you never see a fire.”
The petite Babalis says that height and weight are not obstacles, either.
“What matters is what you can carry and how you can handle the job,” she says, adding that it was only by living here that she got the chance to fulfill her dream. The multi-faceted native New Yorker, former bike messenger, musician, and horse trainer readily recognized for her dreadlocks and piercings, was denied the opportunity to serve back East because she was a woman.
“But I had to, and did, pass the same physical here,” she says. >>>
That physical involved carrying 150 pounds of equipment up two flights of stairs, 50 pounds at a time, in under five minutes, and pulling 150 feet of hose up from the ground to a second story balcony.
Firefighters also practice a balance exercise involving a ladder and a roll of hose, a strength test with a sledgehammer and a railroad tie, and an obstacle course, all while wearing full gear and an air pack. Some tests are done blindfolded, requiring firefighters to weave through obstacle courses and other challenges to rescue “downed” firefighters; others involve carrying 160-pound dummies down a ladder from the second story, up two flights of stairs, back down, and 50 feet across the ground.
The tests are repeated over and over again each year.
When John Davies retired after decades with Intermountain Gas, he didn’t have to give up his job on the Hailey Fire Department, where he had served for 38 years. “I don’t really belong here, I can’t physically do what they can do anymore. I think they just keep me around to be nice to an old-timer,” he jokes.
They come from all walks of life and from across the Valley. The volunteers say the diversity is a complement to the uniform
But in truth, his service as a safety officer is priceless. Davies’ job is to observe scenes in progress, using his experience to help firefighters avoid mistakes. Davies has been with the department since the days when the most compensation they got was a uniform allowance that only kicked in when good work clothes got ruined on the job.
“I had this nice Pendleton shirt once that cost me 20 bucks, and that was a lot of money at the time,” he recalls. “I jumped on a truck for a call and fell off and ripped the elbow out. I got three dollars for a patch. That was a perk.”
Though the perks have improved slightly, Davies says one thing will never change.
“It’s all for one and one for all,” he says. “When the bell rings, we go for it; it’s a community effort.”
What keeps them going, in addition to understanding loved ones, is this, says Sears: “You can go from something that is fun, but not useful, not making the world go around, to making a significant difference in a short period of time. You can arrive at a scene where things look grim and are going south very quickly. Ten minutes later you can have them in the back of an ambulance and on their way to getting better.”
In a community this size, work gets intensely personal.
“Sometimes it’s tough, because you know the people and so it’s hard to stay focused and not get emotionally involved,” says Hailey Fire Lieutenant Phil Rainey. “Other times, even if you don’t know them, you wonder, ‘does their family know what they are going through at this moment?’ It’s tough, but knowing you are trained in the latest techniques helps.”
“Knowing the people makes me want to do it even more,” says KFD’s Ed Binnie. “And the fact that I work with a group of people that I can trust more than any others brings that community bond full circle.”
“As a full-time firefighter I know that we could not get the job done without our paid-on-call members, or ‘volunteers,’” Canfield says. “Without the volunteers, our fire department would not be able to provide the amazingly high level of service that residents and visitors receive in Blaine County.
“Our volunteer firefighters dedicate an incredible amount of their time learning and maintaining their skills, in addition to dropping whatever they are doing to respond to an emergency," she says.
“Though most of us share the personality traits of being compassionate and competitive individuals, everyone brings different skills and qualities that enhance the department and our ability to meet the mission. It is a really rewarding experience to work with such a group.”
There's no time for card playing for Valley firefighters. When not in service, they are training, maintaining equipment, or out in the community teaching fire prevention
Brian Poster knows how important the role of employer is in the system, and as a firefighter himself, whose Poster Construction employs seven other firefighters, he knows it takes understanding clientele, too.
“If we get a good call, we call it a work day and go,” he says. “But our customers understand; it wouldn’t work without that understanding.”
He also knows he has an occupation that lends itself to a game plan change mid-stride, whereas someone working as a cashier at a grocery store can’t have that flexibility.
Having people from such diverse backgrounds increases the intellectual quotient of the department. Many choose to become EMTs, or to rise within the departments.
“You begin to appreciate the knowledge around you very quickly,” says Phil Rainey. “Fire is organic. It can throw a lot at you in a short amount of time. Sometimes, more than you can handle. It’s key that we have a lot of people who can problem-solve under immense pressure, because time is limited.”
For some, like Babalis and others, firefighting has brought them to their true calling. Known for non-conformity, Babalis has had to adjust her personality to stay in the job, but it’s been worth it.
“I love my job; it’s the best one around and I get to work with the best people in the world,” she says.
For Yates, working with “among the most capable people I have ever met,” has not only boosted her own self-confidence, but her connection with her community.
“When we receive a page, we respond immediately because we know we can help,” she says. “Nobody dials 9-1-1 if they think they can handle it themselves.
“The taxpayer might think it’s just our job, but we volunteer because we want to help.”
Poster’s frequent job-site clearings, “are a spectacle,” he says. “But we leave our tools behind and go help our neighbors or others in need.”
Jennifer Liebrum covered breaking news across the country while working for the Houston Chronicle. She recognized the true meaning of community when she covered the Valley for The Wood River Journal. Two-and-a-half-year-old daughters Devon and Gracie, husband Tyler, and her two dogs, two cats, and five horses are her current siren's call.